Unicorn is first and foremost a wholefood shop. We’ve always avoided added sugars, and the vast majority of our products don’t contain any. But we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about those that do!
A simpler (syrup) time
For many years, Unicorn specifically avoided granulated sugar from cane or beet, whilst stocking sweeteners made from agave, rice, maple, date, corn and coconut. We believed, as many did, that these sweeteners were a less refined, healthier option than cane sugar. In addition, the colonial history of cane sugar cultivation – like many cash crops – left a legacy of serious social justice issues around sugar production.
But this picture has changed somewhat. Organic and Fairly Traded cane sugar are now widely available. At the same time, non-cane sweeteners have proliferated, often alongside misleading health claims and assumptions. And they can be produced in a similarly exploitative way (of both people and environment) as cane sugar.
We found ourselves selling non-organic agave syrup (which is neither ‘unrefined’ nor ‘healthy’), while refusing even a small amount of FairTrade organic cane sugar. Chutneys, sweet pickles and many jams – time-honoured ways to make seasonal gluts last all year – had little chance. Especially if we wanted to focus on organic, local or otherwise ethically-sourced options! Meanwhile, we overheard too many people saying ‘Unicorn doesn’t sell sugar’ and buying syrup-rich cake or stroopwaffles.
What once seemed fairly (never entirely!) simple – no cane or beet sugar – had become more complicated.
Sugar, by any other name
After a lot of research, and a lot more discussion, we now understand that most health concerns apply not just to cane or beet sugar, but to all so-called “free sugars.” According to the World Health Organisation, free sugars include not only cane & beet sugar, but also any other added sweeteners, syrups and fruit juices. They exclude sugars present in whole fruits and vegetables.
So, as of summer 2020, our sourcing guidelines now treat all “free sugars” more or less the same, although we do prioritise sugars that are organic, ethically-sourced and minimally processed.
With that in mind, our position hasn’t really changed: We don’t want to sell (many) sweet things, but where we do, we want to sell the best-sourced, lowest-sugar, tastiest options around. And we absolutely do not want to mislead anyone.
Sweets in the shop
You may start to see organic FairTrade cane sugar in a few products on our shelves, especially where sugar plays a functional role. But overall, we are not selling more sweet foods, and the food we sell is not getting sweeter.
Further, you’ll see a stamp on shelf tags where foods do contain any “free sugars” at all – we don’t stock any of these lines lightly! For the first 12 months we are also highlighting any new additions with cane sugar, while everyone gets used to the change. Going forward, we will keep an eye on new research and adjust our policies and practices accordingly.
As ever, we hope our current guidelines and practices enable us to sell the best groceries we can, for people and planet.